Michigan-based KMI has partnered with three universities for the Orbital Prime program
WASHINGTON – Kall Morris Inc. announced Sept. 7 that it has received three study contracts for debris cleanup technologies under the Space Force Orbital Prime program.
Michigan-based KMI is a research and development startup focused on space debris remediation.
Orbital Prime is operated by SpaceWERX, the technology arm of US space force. In May, he selected 125 business teams for the initial phase of the program, intended to promote the commercial development of technologies for orbital debris cleanup and other space services.
KMI’s three prizes, worth $750,000, are Small Business Technology Transfer Contracts (STTRs) that require small businesses to team up with academic or nonprofit institutions. Winners of the first phase of Orbital Prime can compete for larger follow-on contracts.
The company offers a debris removal concept that uses sticky arms – a technique known as gecko gripping – to capture debris objects like inert satellites and rocket bodies flying into orbit unchecked and are not prepared for capture.
For each of the three Orbital Prime awards, KMI partnered with different universities. He is working with the Space Engineering Research Center at the University of Southern California to refine the concept of adhesive arms. He has partnered with the Biomimetics and Agile Manipulation Laboratory at Stanford University to explore other adhesion techniques, and with the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT to examine ways to collect and analyze the debris.
Troy Morris, co-founder and chief operating officer of KMI, said the association between the private sector and universities improves the quality of proposals. “Universities provide technical support, a wealth of experience and testing resources,” he said.. “It helps small businesses so that we don’t have to go out and rebuild or buy something that’s already in their lab.”
Business case for debris removal
Morris said companies participating in the Orbital Prime program hoped it would lead to a real debris removal mission and a commitment from the US government to purchase cleanup services from the private sector.
A major obstacle for the industry, he said, is that there are no credible estimates of what it will cost to remove tens of thousands of debris which make space operations increasingly dangerous due to the risk of collisions.
Space debris disposal is a huge technical challenge and some companies are already doing it demonstrate it’s possible. The toughest piece is the business case, Morris said. “It’s about having the right signal from Space Force, commercial operators and others to prove to investors that there is a real market that can move forward and solve the problem.”
Morris said the debris of greatest concern are large rocket bodies that would obliterate spacecraft in the event of a collision. Most are upper stages of rockets launched decades ago that were never intended to be captured or docked with other vehicles.
Space industry companies have adopted sustainability plans to minimize debris such as deorbit non-functional satellites, but the debris count is still increasing, Morris said.
Many players in the space industry believe that there is a future market not only in the recovery and disposal of waste, but also reassignmentsaid Morris, because the rocket bodies would provide raw materials to manufacture hardware in orbit.